My review of Ting cell service and using an iPod Touch as a phone (or ditching any phone)

A few weeks ago I heard an ad for on the network. Ting’s parent company is Tucows, the same company behind the nice domain registration service. That alone led me to check it out.

Ting is a cell network service that promises to be an “honest” provider by charging you just for what you use. You go to, setup an account, select a device, and then choose plans for your minutes, texts, and data (in megabytes), and it charges you accordingly based on your actual usage. The plan-picking stage is really more of a guide to help you estimate your bill. So if you select a 200 MB data plan, but only use 100 MB, they credit you back the difference. Or, if you select 100 MB and use 199 MB, they let you go ahead and use an extra 99 MB without penalties or fees, it’s just the same rate you were already paying.

It’s still a small service, with only about 10-20 thousand users, but they’re already profitable, which makes me feel secure in using them. The cellular service is run through Sprint, which had a surprising amount of service to me. More on that later.

First, to give you as much information as possible, I have to explain to you what I’m trying to do and how I use my iPhone 4s because obviously your mileage will vary.

I switched from Verizon to AT&T back when the original iPhone came out and I’ve used AT&T since then. I’ve been mostly satisfied with the service, except when visiting family in my hometown of Salem, where AT&T coverage is spotty, and slow at best. But I live in Indianapolis, just a few minutes outside of Downtown, and I’ve been satisfied. However, it is pricey. I have a Verizon LTE iPad and I’m satisfied with it, too.

An iPhone costs, over the life of a contract around $650. That price is subsidized by the carriers, but you end up paying for it and more over the long run because once you start upgrading at odd times like I did, the water gets muddy. I’ve got a year of my contract left on AT&T at the time of this writing, and the cost to cancel my contract (so AT&T can recover the costs of the phone) is only about $100. Which means the $72 a month I pay eventually just turns into me just giving AT&T money just because they assume I’m too stupid to figure that out.

At $72 a month (which includes taxes and fees), I’m paying $864 a year for cell service and an iPhone. Except, I hate the phone. I don’t like talking to people over the phone because I think it’s a waste of time and ties me to doing just one piddly thing at a time. Calls are just people’s way of saying, “I don’t care about what you’re doing right now, stop and do this now.” As a result of my hatred for the phone, I only spend about an hour a month actively talking.

Since the advent of iMessage, I use, on average, about 50 text messages a month. Those are almost entirely comprised of spam and delivery notifications for my grocery deliveries. Almost all my friends use iMessage, as do most of my clients, because they’re all good people with good taste.

As for data, I use about 60 MB a month. I work from home, or spend time in places that have WiFi, like Starbucks. My data usage could be lower if I took the time to actually switch WiFi on in places. I usually don’t bother messing with it just to check my email, so it bumps my usage up a bit.

I have a 250 MB per month data allotment, 450 minutes with rollovers, and 1000 text messages (I was grandfathered in on that part). I use hardly any of that. It’s a lot of money to spend on something I don’t use too heavily. Except, I feel like I use my phone a whole lot. And it turns out I do, but mostly for apps and taking photos.

I also commute entirely by bike everywhere I go. So I don’t spend time in a car futzing with my phone like most people do, but shouldn’t. It’s also against the law in Indiana now, anyway. My phone goes in my backpack or bike bag and there it stays until I get to my destination. (I use a dedicated iPod Nano with the clip as my music device on the bike since it’s easy to mess with while pedaling and stays secure.)

So you can see why Ting interests me from a savings standpoint and based on my usage. With Apple’s pending release of new iPod Touches, I wanted to see if I could use an iPod Touch as my only iOS device in conjunction with Ting.

To do that, I purchased a Huawei Express Mobile Hotspot from Ting, which is actually just a Sprint Mobile Hotspot. That would become my connection to the cell network when I needed it. To get voice, I purchased a Skype number and installed the Skype app, and Messages would still allow me to use iMessage. That means voice, data, and text are all squared away. Skype costs me $3 a month, Ting costs me $12 a month ($6 for the device per month, $3 for data at 100 MB (estimated), and I’m estimating high on fees). That’s a savings of $60 a month, or $720 a year. Would you like $720 a year? That’s about the cost of a mortgage payment.

A new iPod Touch goes for $299, and the hotspot device was $110. Both will pay for themselves after a few months given what I was paying. Ting doesn’t support the iPhone currently, only Android devices and some older flip phones, and all at full retail price. But that’s okay, because long-term it makes better financial sense. Someday they hope to offer the iPhone natively. In theory, there’s no reason why it couldn’t work considering it’s Sprint-capable.

I got my hotspot device 5 days after ordering. It came branded as a Sprint device (because it is), and turning it on brought up its activation process. A short while later it downloaded a firmware update. It quickly started to emit a WiFi signal that my iPhone and iPad both hooked into easily once I supplied the password it generated. The password doesn’t seem to change, if at all, once it’s activated, so just turning the device off and on again makes my devices hook back into it when no other WiFi networks are in range.

From what I had read, I was expecting no signal, data transfers at the speed of molasses and a generally horrible experience with Sprint. I was pleasantly surprised.

Sprint does not have 4G service in Indianapolis yet, but it’s slated to start literally any day now (the hotspot is 4G ready). So it’s confined to 3G, but it’s every bit as fast as my AT&T service on my iPhone 4S. Pages loaded, emails sent, everything seemed to work just as I had hoped it would.

As a bonus, it supports up to five devices at once, so next time I can avoid paying more for this Verizon iPad and just get a WiFi only model. (I briefly thought of using the iPad as my hotspot device, but decided I didn’t want to always carry my much pricier iPad with me all over the place.

To test this further, I turned off my cell radio in my iPhone and set it to work only on WiFi (or, in this case, the hotspot’s WiFi). I biked around town testing for connection issues and data speeds and even hopped on a few busses just to go around and test Skype VoIP call quality and data transfers.

Sprint never gave me more than 3 bars (out of 5) at any spot I tried, and it only has 1 bar in my house, but I can’t tell if Sprint’s just good enough to give you data transfers so long as it has a connection of any strength, or if the device is just bad at gauging its reception. It functioned the same whether it had 1 bar or 3. The hotspot did, while Downtown at Ohio and Pennsylvania, switch to 4G, but with no bars. After a few seconds it quickly changed to 3G with 2 bars. I hope to see that 4G more often over the next 4-6 months as they rollout here in Indy.

Voice quality over Skype was every bit as good as AT&T’s, even with the obligatory few moments where it distorted just ever so slightly. I never experienced a drop, or any time where the connection was so bad I couldn’t still understand what the other party was saying. Data transfers never seemed to hang. And this was all the while having the hotspot in my bike bag in buildings, on a bus, or on my bike. If you purchased a Ting plan with voice for an actual phone, it roams for free onto Verizon, so voice would almost always be secure for you. I’m being bleeding edge here trying to go data only, though, which doesn’t roam.

I’ve been using it all weekend and haven’t turned on the cell radio once. I’ve used Maps, Safari, iMessage, Mail, Yelp, Reeder, Facebook, Twitter, sent photos, downloaded PDFs and with no noticeable problems.

On the first day I tried it, I had a friend attempt to connect to it, but it wasn’t working for either of us. That, it seems, was because it hadn’t done a firmware update yet. Once that was complete, it went along fine.

After all weekend using iOS as heavily as I reasonably could I used just 15 MB. Many times I used the cell network when I could have used WiFi, like at Starbucks or even sitting near other places with open WiFi. Downtown it was hard to walk around and not find a public WiFi network. I was purposely loading large images and PDFs just to try and break it. The only issue I found was streaming some YouTube videos, and I’ve read streaming music from iTunes or Rdio is a little sluggish, but I rarely use those things on-the-go anyway. Heck, I rarely use those things on my phone period.

The hotspot device is about as big as a deck of cards, and the weight is comparable to half the cards in the deck. So if you don’t ever carry a messenger bag/purse/briefcase or some other way to carry it outside of a pocket, it’s probably too much of a hassle. I wouldn’t want to carry it and a wallet and phone at once. But I always have my backpack or bike bag with me wherever I go, so it fits my lifestyle. The device has a flimsy plastic back cover that sorta slides on, so I wouldn’t call this rugged.

I did notice that the hotspot does get alarmingly warm after a while, but once I took it out of the tight pouch I had it in, it cooled down and was fine. I chalk that up to my having given it no room to breathe in my bag.

Battery life is rated at 4-5 hours of continuous use, and I take that to mean continuous data transfer use. It powers down after idle activity to save battery life. I charged it Friday morning and used it through Sunday evening and it still had over 50% charge.

Why Ting over AT&T or Verizon? Because AT&T and Verizon both have data-only hotspot devices, but they both charge ridiculous prices. AT&T offers a few weekly plans with about 100mb of data, or you can $50 per month, which is about as much as my current bill. Verizon was no different. The savings just weren’t enough to bother. What’s really irritating is that you realize just how much cheaper they charge tablet devices, iPad or not, compared to their hotspots. It’s like they’re aware someone might figure out ways to ditch their high-priced business model of trading dollars for minutes.

I investigated what it would cost to cut my AT&T service off right now, and it’d be $110, which would pay for itself in about 1.5 months of service with Ting. Add a couple months if you want to count the cost of the Ting hotspot.

I’m continuing to test the service and to see how long I can go without needing the cell radio. I suspect next month once the new iPod Touches are available I’ll switch to that, cancel my AT&T service, and enjoy the savings.

Ting’s service through their mobile hotspot would also be pretty good for people who wanted a backup data device on the cheap for their laptop or tablet. I used it with my MacBook Air briefly and felt it was pretty good. I’d be afraid I’d eat through a lot of data really fast on it, though.

My recommendation? Buy it if you don’t mind toting another small device with you. Avoid it if you don’t have the space to easily carry it or live in a rural area without Sprint coverage.

You can use this link for $25 off your choice of device there, and I’ll get a $25 credit, too.

UPDATE, 12/6: I’m still happily using Ting, and have written about my experience using the iPhone on Ting at my company blog.

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Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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